The Red Desert

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The Red Desert, 1964. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

When the director Michelangelo Antonioni set out to make his first colour film, The Red Desert, he decided to use colour as an expressive component rather than just  the natural colour of the background. With his production designer Piero Poletto and cinematographer Carlo di Palma (later Woody Allen’s DoP) he designed it as a black & white film with colour elements.

I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the colour relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colours.”

The story follows the alienation and mental fragility of the main character, played by Monica Vitti, in the industrial setting of northern Italy.

To render this, locations that were neutrally coloured were selectively painted to introduce specific elements of colour. In the factory scenes below, pipes were painted in bright colours that stand out against the monochrome background.

At external locations, including the one above, the ground was sprayed with grey-wash to supress the natural colour of the earth, subduing the mood and making the costume colours pop out. In all scenes, costume was selected to give accent and contrast in otherwise neutral settings.

One reading of The Red Desert is that it Vitti’s character is disintegrating because of the alienating industrial landscape. But Antonioni wanted the film to simultaneously describe the beauty of industrial architecture,

“My intention was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees.”

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